Thriving on the challenge: Trucker of the Month Candace Marley

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Updated Mar 29, 2024
Candace Marley with her Peterbilt 579 dressed up for Wreaths Across America
Independent owner-operator Candace Marley is going on two years with her own authority. She's faced no shortage of challenges since getting her first taste of business ownership in a lease-purchase in 2019. Her tenacious spirit and ability to thrive under stress have helped her persevere.

Success as an owner-operator in trucking, particularly in the down market that the industry has experienced in the last two years, requires a certain level of stick-to-itiveness that not every trucker possesses. You can't say that about South English, Iowa-based Candace Marley. She's got that particular quality of tenacity to excel regardless of the challenges the business throws at her.

Marley hauled as a company driver for much of the time between when she got her CDL in 2009 until she bought her first truck in 2020, then branched out on her own in 2022, getting her authority as Calliope LLC. The business name is significant for two reasons:

  1. Calliope was the Greek muse who is believed to have inspired Homer to write the Iliad.
  2. The Calliope is a type of hummingbird in the Pacific Northwest, known as the smallest hummingbird in North America.  

As with many other hummingbirds, the Calliope's small stature belies big, uncommon agility, a quality it's no stretch to say owner-operator Candace Marley takes business inspiration from herself. She loves hummingbirds.

Candace MarleyOwner-operator Candace Marley was the Real Women in Trucking group's 2023 Queen of the Road.When she got her authority in June 2022, the market was starting to turn for the worse for carriers. By August of that year, when she officially hit the road with authority for the first time following a hand surgery, diesel prices had hit record highs and the slowdown was on. On top of market challenges and other economic pressures facing owner-operators all over, Marley's had to work to overcome a total engine failure barely a year after she struck out on her own -- not to mention the theft of her trailer while her truck was down.

[Related: 'Expensive wisdom' from decades trucking: Trucker of the Month Doug Viaille]

Some may have thrown in the towel, but that’s not in her nature. “I thrive on being challenged,” she said. Trucking has offered a challenge no prior work did.

“The one thing that’s been good about trucking itself is it’s been more challenging,” she said. “Well, eventually company driving just … wasn’t challenging anymore. Being my own boss has been way more challenging, so much more. I love it, I thrive on it. I thrive on pushing myself and challenging myself. It’s something new all the time. It’s very stressful, but at the same time, I thrive off that stress.”

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Her tenacity has led to a successful start to her owner-operator career, and she's quickly developed strong relationships with go-to brokers to source dry van freight.

Frank Graziano, Capacity Portfolio Manager at C.H. Robinson, lauded the work she does hauling freight for the company. She’s been hauling for CHR and Graziano for almost two years.

“She is always on-time for appointments, has incredible communication, and she is also a very pleasant and kind individual to work with,” he said. “She has proven her dependability time and time again through the harshest weather and economic conditions and always finds a way to get things done.”

Brian Bruck, with Iowa-based brokerage LTI Delivers, said he’s been working with Marley since April 2022 in one capacity or another. The owner-operator's "willing to service almost anywhere” in the Midwest, Northeast and Southeast, he said. “She is always a pleasure to talk to, work with, and rely on. She communicates very well and is rarely late picking up or delivering a load.”

Owner-operator Candace Marley is Overdrive's Trucker of the Month for March, putting her in the running for the 2024 Trucker of the Year award, sponsored this year by Commercial Vehicle Group and its well-known Bostrom Seating brand.

2024 Overdrive Trucker of the Year logoOverdrive's 2024 Trucker of the Year program, sponsored by Commercial Vehicle Group and Bostrom Seating, recognizes clear business acumen and unique or time-honored recipes for success among owner-operators. Through October, we're naming Truckers of the Month to contend for the Trucker of the Year honor. Finalists will be named in December, and a winner crowned early next year. Nominations continue to be sought for exceptional owner-operators, whether leased or independent, throughout the year. Nominate your business or that of a fellow owner (up to three trucks) via this link for a chance to win a custom replica of your tractor and a Bostrom seat from Commercial Vehicle Group, among other perks.

[Related: Trucker of the Year Jay Hosty nets new Bostrom seat, custom replica of his '06 Western Star 4900EX]

New beginnings, major stumbling blocks

Marley has been around trucking since the mid-late 1990s. She got involved in trucking herself when her late husband, Michael Marley, who was a trucker, got sick with melanoma in 2009 and passed away. Candace had been working as a third-shift stocker at Walmart and a freelance web developer at the time.

“He got too sick to drive, and Walmart wasn’t going to pay the bills,” she said. “Basically, I said, ‘If you can’t drive, I will.’ I stepped in and went off to truck driving school and became the truck driver.”

Michael lived for about seven months after Candace started her trucking career, and when he passed, she took some time off the road to grieve.

Then: “I realized I kind of missed it and went back to it, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” she said. During the 1.5-2 years she spent off the road, “doing any kind of work just didn’t work out well. My brain was not in a good place. When I finally started to come back to civilization again, I guess you could say, and be aware of the world around me again, I started noticing the trucks on the road and started thinking, ‘I kind of miss that.’”

Getting back behind the wheel wasn’t easy, but not for a lack of trying on Candace’s part. Her time away from the road resulted in “lots of rejections” from fleets looking for more experience than she had.

She got a break from a friend of her mother, who “had a couple of trucks that he had leased onto a flatbed company, and he put me in one of his trucks.” After a crash course learning the flatbed ropes, she spent a few months doing that before moving to reefer work.

She officially began her journey as an owner-operator in 2019 when she entered into a lease-purchase agreement with Western Flyer Express, knowing going in that she would likely never own that truck. She was certainly bringing home more money in that agreement than she had been as a company driver, though, and she saved enough of it to outright purchase her own truck in 2020.

[Related: Bitterman Trucking bounces back to build on long, strong trucking legacy]

That truck -- a 2017 Kenworth T680 -- served her well until the fateful late-September day last year when a catastrophic engine failure left her in the lurch. “I was six months away from paying her off totally,” Marley said. “Six months from paying her off, and she died in Oklahoma City.”

The engine’s injector cups had been leaking for a while, the shop discovered, “and there was coolant throughout the entire fuel system,” Marley said.

Her options, after discussing them with the shop:

  • Replace heads and clean the entire fuel system for around $22,000;
  • Do an in-frame engine rebuild for about $50,000; or
  • Trade the truck for another.

She chose the last, after consulting with her fiancé and mechanic, Rick “Skeeter” Muller.

As Marley told the story, “He said, ‘The thing is, you can change your heads, but the problem you could face is now you have new heads with an old bottom, and your bottom could blow out. It may not, but it could.’ ... Last year was rough with the rates, the fuel, the whole year was rough for everybody, and I had this happen on top of all that” -- but that wasn’t the end of the adversity.

After the breakdown, she had her truck towed to Kenworth in Oklahoma City, and her trailer was dropped on the frontage road with others; Kenworth didn’t have space on their lot for trailers. “It was fine the entire two weeks I was sitting there in a hotel room going through all this,” she said. Muller then was able to get down to OKC and pick her up to take her home, allowing her to work out the deal for her next truck -- a 2020 Peterbilt 579, which she bought after negotiating a trade for the Kenworth, paying off the $12,000 she still owed on it and financing the new rig for around $70,000.

Candace Marley's 2020 Peterbilt 579Marley has been in this 2020 Peterbilt 579 for about five months. She bought it with 314,000 miles on the clock and said it's treating her well so far, particularly in the fuel mileage department: she's averaging between 7 and 7.5 mpg now.

By the time she got her new truck back to OKC, however, she discovered her trailer had been stolen, and “it has never been found. September and October were the months from hell,” she said, down both truck and trailer, two months of revenue. She’s been playing catch-up ever since -- difficult even in a good market -- but is slowly starting to get back to where she wants to be.

The new 579 is more aerodynamic (high-roof rather than low) than her old Kenworth had been -- her fuel mileage has improved substantially from averaging 6 mpg in the Kenworth to now between 7 and 7.5 mpg in the Peterbilt.

[Related: Nominate an exemplary owner today: Overdrive's 2024 Trucker of the Year competition]

Managing the business

Since getting her authority as Calliope, Marley's hauled dry van freight mostly in the Midwest and Southeast. She tends to spend anywhere from 1-3 weeks on the road at a time, depending on “how things are rolling,” she said. “I just try to go with the flow. If I've got something good going on, I’ll keep running.”

Her fiancé, Muller, is a partner in the business, handling all the maintenance on the truck he can do at their home. “He takes care of my preventive maintenance and, whenever possible, any other repairs that need to be done,” she said. “If it can be done at home, it gets done at home. If something happens on the road that can wait, it waits.”

Bostrom Seating logoEnter your business in Overdrive's Trucker of the Year competition for a chance to win a seat from program sponsor Bostrom Seating, among other perks and prizes.Marley uses an accounting service to handle most of her bookkeeping and taxes, and she uses Rigbooks as a bookkeeping and accounting assist to stay on top of her numbers. Per-mile and other cost tracking, she said, give her "a better handle on what I need to be making to make a profit. If there’s a load that comes up at $1.80 a mile, can I afford to take that load? Or can I break even on that to get me to somewhere I need to go? Mainly I’m using it as a tool so I have those numbers on hand to know what I can get by with, what’s going to be profitable, and what’s not.”

[Related: Calculate any load's cost in relation to time, not just miles -- a new tool]

She's still making payments on that stolen trailer -- the insurance payout didn’t cover all of what she owed -- so she's run some power-only freight and is now renting a trailer through the Repowr rental service.

Owner-operator Marley and her dachsund, CinnamonMarley isn't by herself when she's on the road. Her co-pilots include her dachshund, Cinnamon, pictured here, and a Jack Russell Terrier mix, Shredder. "[Cinnamon] went blind, and I went and got Shredder," Marley said. "She got so depressed when she lost her eyesight suddenly, so I went and got him as a puppy and he brought her back to life and made her act normal again."While she's made efforts near her home base to connect with shippers -- stopping by every so often to leave a business card and remind them she’s nearby -- she’s picky about the brokers she chooses to work with. She factors her loads through BasicBlock at a 2% rate on next-day payments, and she said the factor stays on top of brokers and keeps a reject list.

“I stick with the [brokers] on their acceptable list,” she said. “If I do venture outside my normal brokers, the first thing I do is check their list.”

In addition to benefiting from the 579's high-roof configuration, better suited for aerodynamics pulling dry vans than her previous truck, she’s also slowed down. It's “made a big difference in my fuel mileage, keeping my foot off that pedal,” she said. She uses the Mudflap service to compare fuel prices at the pump, has a Pilot Flying J fuel card and a Motive fuel card.

“I shop around. I try to get the best bang for my buck,” she said.

With her pick of freight, she strives to be like the Calliope, to an extent, too -- staying light on load weight as often as possible to to keep fuel costs in check.

[Related: How owner-operators still standing have weathered big rates drops through the present]

As a relatively new carrier in 2023, Marley said things were going pretty well for the business until her late-September breakdown.

“It wasn’t easy, but I was actually doing pretty good,” she said. “I wasn’t sinking. I was like everyone else, staying above water. I wasn’t doing fantastic or anything, but I was staying up there.”

She felt that if she could just weather the storm of the market through to the other side, things would really start looking up. After the breakdown, though, it’s been another uphill climb. “It’s rough, especially when you’re trying to play catch-up in this market,” she said. “It’s hard enough to stay afloat, let alone catch up, but I am catching up.”

Outside of work, Marley participates in the annual Mother’s Day Convoy, the Des Moines Special Olympics Convoy, and Wreaths Across America.

The Mother’s Day Convoy, she said, is “so much fun driving around, and the kids line up alongside the road waiting for the trucks to come by and honk their horns at them. I get a lot of joy out of it.”

She got involved in the Special Olympics Convoy to support the organization after her son, who has a learning disability, participated in the Special Olympics in New York. Wreaths Across America holds significance for her as she works to honor her late husband, Sgt. Michael Marley, who served in the Army.

[Related: They said he'd fail: Overdrive's Trucker of the Year, Jay Hosty]

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